Monday, August 18, 2008

Proposed Roads to Freedom, Chapter I

Chapter I (pages 1-31), “Marx and Socialist Doctrine”

[An e-version of Chapter I is available here.]

While it is hard to define “socialism,” something along the lines of “the advocacy of communal ownership of land and capital [p. 1]” is serviceable. Communal ownership might include state ownership, but only if the state is itself democratic – with differences among socialist or radical variations often depending on the type of democracy envisioned. All variants are opposed to capitalism, though supporters of the current working class, the wage earners.

As a potent political movement, socialism in Europe essentially started with Marx and Engels. They developed a sufficiently convincing theoretical structure, and initiated “the International Socialist movement, which has continued to grow in all European countries throughout the last fifty years [p. 3].” Russell then provides a brief biography of Marx (pp. 3-6), including his debt to Hegel. Russell maintains that the three key Marxian doctrines are: first, “the materialistic interpretation of history; second, the law of the concentration of capital; and, third, the class war [pp. 6-7].” This won’t be new to readers of Marx, so I’ll only pick up on a few points. “He [Marx] does not so much advocate the Socialist revolution as predict it [p. 7].” Capitalists are only pawns in the game, not really to blame for the behavior that is foisted upon them. Marx seems to think that a factory will have a single owner, and hence that the capitalist class will shrink as concentration in industry and agriculture increases. Higher concentration in production helps to support Marx’s supposition that people tend increasingly to fall into one of two classes, capital owners or wage earners.

Russell embarks on a set of quotations from The Communist Manifesto [pp. 10-17], a work that he (correctly) characterizes as possessing “the most amazing vigor and force [p. 9].” Again, as these quotations will not be news to readers of Marx (and Engels), I will bypass them. Russell moves on to a brief discussion of Capital and Marx’s theory of surplus value. “This doctrine is very complicated and is scarcely tenable as a contribution to pure theory [p. 18];” rather, it serves as “a translation into abstract terms of the hatred with which Marx regarded the system that coins wealth out of human lives…[p. 18].” Russell believes the main contribution of Capital is the accumulation of facts about the horrors of the working of the capitalist system, facts that “are practically unknown to the vast majority of those who live comfortable lives [p. 19],” and Russell provides some excerpts concerning child labor, impossibly long working hours, and terrible working conditions, sometimes proving fatal. He notes the hoped-for, and for Marx, inevitable end of the system through a revolution in which “‘The expropriators are expropriated [p. 25].’”

Is Marx’s vision of historical development true, and is socialism desirable? “The second of these questions is quite independent of the first [p.25].” One gets the impression [or at least I do] that Russell doesn’t think all that highly of Marx as a philosopher or as an economist, but values Marx as a social critic and political organizer. [Russell devotes a section of A History of Western Philosophy to Marx, and comments: "Considered purely as a philosopher, Marx has grave shortcomings."] Russell notes that the passage of time has shown problems with Marx’s theories and predictions, even though it has also revealed Marx to be “a man of very unusual penetration [p. 25].” Some of the difficulties: nationalism has not faded away; in the advanced countries, the lot of workers has improved; while there has been some agglomeration of capital into big firms, there also has been growth in medium-sized firms; and shareholding has broken down the stark distinction between workers and capitalists.

Partly as a result of the failed prophesies, reformist versions of Marxian socialism – offering evolutionary and not revolutionary change – have emerged from within. “Syndicalism represents an attack against it from without, from the standpoint of a doctrine which professes to be even more radical and more revolutionary than that of Marx and Engels [pp. 28-9].” The Syndicalists focus on the class war dimension of Marxian thinking. They attack Marx’s vision of socialism, as well as Marx’s proposed path to achieve it. The notion (which appears in The Communist Manifesto) that an initial step in the revolution is for the proletariat to take over the apparatus of the state holds little appeal to Syndicalists. They view the state as hopelessly corrupt, and democracy and political parties as not to be trusted. Syndicalists favor organization not by political party, but by vocation. Parliamentary methods and elections are not the way forward; direct action by revolutionary trade unions is. A powerful state, even a Socialist state, is no part of the Syndicalist plan.

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